The New York Times's alarmist environmental reporter Justin Gillis made the front of Business Day Wednesday with a left-wing protest movement at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, which is apparently "at the vanguard of a national movement": "The Divestment Brigade."
A group of Swarthmore College students is asking the school administration to take a seemingly simple step to combat pollution and climate change: sell off the endowment’s holdings in large fossil fuel companies. For months, they have been getting a simple answer: no.
As they consider how to ratchet up their campaign, the students suddenly find themselves at the vanguard of a national movement.
In recent weeks, college students on dozens of campuses have demanded that university endowment funds rid themselves of coal, oil and gas stocks. The students see it as a tactic that could force climate change, barely discussed in the presidential campaign, back onto the national political agenda.
Students who have signed on see it as a conscious imitation of the successful effort in the 1980s to pressure colleges and other institutions to divest themselves of the stocks of companies doing business in South Africa under apartheid.
Gillis, a confessed climate activist, again gave publicity to the radical eco-activist Bill McKibben, who wrote a book advocating couples limit themselves to just one child to combat overpopulation:
Several organizations have been working on some version of a divestment campaign, initially focusing on coal, for more than a year. But the recent escalation has largely been the handiwork of a grass-roots organization, 350.org, that focuses on climate change, and its leader, Bill McKibben, a writer turned advocate. The group’s name is a reference to what some scientists see as a maximum safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million. The level is now about 390, an increase of 41 percent since before the Industrial Revolution.
Mr. McKibben is touring the country by bus, speaking at sold-out halls and urging students to begin local divestment initiatives focusing on 200 energy companies. Many of the students attending said they were inspired to do so by an article he wrote over the summer in Rolling Stone magazine, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”
Mr. McKibben’s goal is to make owning the stocks of these companies disreputable, in the way that owning tobacco stocks has become disreputable in many quarters. Many colleges will not buy them, for instance.
Gillis didn't exactly come across as objective by again comparing the Swarthmore exercise to the civil rights movement in South Africa.
The divestment demand is so new that most administrators are just beginning to grapple with it. Several of them, in interviews, said that even though they tended to agree with students on the seriousness of the problem, they feared divisive boardroom debates on divestment.
That was certainly the case in the 1980s, when the South African divestment campaign caused bitter arguments across the nation.
The issue then was whether divestment, potentially costly, would have much real effect on companies doing business in South Africa. Even today, historians differ on whether it did. But the campaign required prominent people to grapple with the morality of apartheid, altering the politics of the issue. Economic pressure from many countries ultimately helped to force the whites-only South African government to the bargaining table.